WPNOFLOVE helped 6LACK, the reigning king of that brand of R&B, develop his sound years before the world became obsessed with it. Graphic: Okayplayer

Retro Neo: WPNOFLOVE on How R&B is "Fantasy" But Neo-Soul is "Real"

For our latest edition of Retro Neo, we spoke with WPNOFLOVE about his love for Anthony Hamilton and Musiq Soulchild. He also blessed us with a new okay acoustics, where he covers Alicia Keys' classic "Diary."

A consequence of evolution is offsprings giving a new incarnation of the source. WPNOFLOVE is the neo-soul baby who turned the genre’s penchant for poetically delivering harsh truths into a dark R&B sound where yearnings for hood love (“I’m Good, Luv”) aren’t too far from finding love with chakras (“Her”). He helped 6LACK, the reigning king of that brand of R&B, develop his sound years before the world became obsessed with it. But the artist, engineer, and songwriter knows it all starts with neo-soul.

“[Neo-soul] made it cool to speak your truth in music. A lot of times R&B sounded like a fantasy," WPNOFLOVE said. "But, when you listen to [Anthony Hamilton’s] ‘Charlene,’ you’re like, 'this is real. I got to find Charlene and find out what happened.'” 

Whether it was the car rides with his stepfather looking at luxury homes, trying to manifest a better future or finding the confidence to speak his truth, neo-soul has been WPNOFLOVE's soundtrack. In our latest edition of Retro Neo, WPNOFLOVE broke down the neo-soul albums that shaped him, how the genre has evolved and his dream neo-soul collaboration. WPNOFLOVE also gifted us with a new okay acoustics where he covered Alicia Keys' early 2000s classic "Diary."

What was your earliest memory of neo-soul? 

WPNOFLOVE: I think my first experience was Erykah’s Baduizm. That was ‘97, so I was six. My mom was a single mother so a lot of her music was for strong, single Black women. I listened to that music in the car with my mother driving around Connecticut and New York. Before I realized I had a knack for creating music, the thought process of neo-soul attracted me. Also, Amel Larrieux. My stepdad loved to take drives in the mountains on the weekends to look at fancy houses, trying to project where we were going to be in life. That was the soundtrack for those drives. 

What neo-souls albums have a personal and musical connection to you?

Luvanmusiq by Musiq Soulchild. That album was everything for me. The way he put his words together and his melodies, he made intricately created music sound simple. You felt like you could sing just like Musiq even though you can hear he’s doing some next shit (laughs). He made it very familiar. That album is big for me. I think D’Angelo’s Voodoo was a big album for me. That’s when I fell in love with music. He felt vulnerable and honest. A lot of these R&B singers before that sounded like pretty boys and very type-casted. He was dark-skinned and swole like the niggas on the block. Listening to his music felt very familiar. I also liked Anthony Hamilton’s Comin' From Where I’m From. I don’t know if everyone acknowledges that as a neo-soul vibe, but I sing that album so much. Also, Jill Scott’s Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2with “Stil Here” and “Golden.” It made it cool to speak your truth in music. A lot of times R&B sounded like a fantasy. But, when you listen to [Anthony Hamilton’s] “Charlene,” you’re like, "this is real. I got to find Charlene and find out what happened (laughs)."

Which of your songs have the deepest neo-soul influence?

The second half of the first song on Witching Hour, “3:33.” If the songs were separate it would be called “Bizarre.” I sampled Erykah Badu in it. It made me feel like I was at a jazz get-together where I freestyle talking my shit. If it was a visual, I’d be talking to someone specifically like I’m this spirit trying to talk to you. I think that has that neo-soul vibe. Also, a song like “Toy.” It has that spacey-ness and relatable. It wasn’t traditional R&B and gave me that bigger than life sound I believe neo-soul brings out. 

What neo-soul artist would you want to collaborate with and how would the song go?

My dream collaboration is with Musiq Soulchild. He’s kinda like the blueprint for me. I love his songwriting. He has a range but he also has hood nigga melodies. I feel we would intertwine pretty dope. There haven’t been too many male duets in the past years, especially from the neo-soul genre. I feel that would be dope to interact with him in a musical space.

You sound like you were made from this genre.

If I didn’t grow listening to neo-soul, I might’ve just been a listener of music. Rock-and-Roll is my other top genre, but I don’t think that alone, or pop alone, or rap alone would make me want to do music and do it as a career. I don’t think I would’ve made music without neo-soul because that made me feel I could do it. Not that it was simple, but it let me know I could be myself. It’s hard for me to listen to neo-soul that’s forced. That’s hard to do in neo-soul. Dudes like Raphael Saadiq are like poster children for neo-soul and he gives real emotion. If we didn’t have him we wouldn’t have Alicia Keys.

How has neo-soul evolved to you?

What’s happened is it has expanded to a free-for-all. Now, you can listen to a rap album [from] Big K.R.I.T. and it damn near feels like neo-soul. I think it evolved and allowed more people to come in and create under that umbrella. 

Have you connected to any neo-soul legends?

I’ve met some people when I was younger. I did a little work-for-hire situation with Monica when she was still managing Rocko and they were experimenting with neo-soul sounds back then. That was cool because she’s a voice and a personality, as we saw with her Verzuz with Brandy. That was back in 2007, 2008. 

What are three neo-soul songs you love to cover and why?

I like “Brown Sugar” by D’Angelo. That’s a record I can sing even when I’m trying to be annoying with my girlfriend (laughs). It’s one of those songs that just pops up to the forefront. When I’m feeling good, I’m humming it. When I’m in the shower, I’m humming it. “On & On” by Erykah is a song I feel if you sing that, everybody in the room going to sing with you. I also like “Coming From Where I’m From” by Anthony Hamilton. That record felt like “Locked Up” by Akon. The first time I heard it, I already saw the video for it. That’s a song I love to sing.

What sound should expect from a new WPNOFLOVE project?

With the next project, I’m not fully diving into a neo-soul vibe for two reasons. One, I wanted to showcase my diversity. This new album hits acoustic, radio, R&B, rock and everything on there. It allowed me to showcase my range, voice and songwriting. Two, it wasn’t until recently [people] who were great songwriters told me I should be confident in my voice. I played records I was working on for another project after the next one. I didn’t dive into neo-soul because I admired it so much and I didn’t want to fake it. I don’t want to use autotune on my neo-soul tracks. I want to be all the way there with it. It dives into it a little. I have a track called “Hypnosis” that’s the most neo-soul track on there. It definitely has that vibe. My next project after this one is going to dive into the neo-soul.


Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop, technology, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt Magazine, and more. Follow him @JusAire